Dean Park is an iconic 'little' cricket ground that nestles in a leafy suburb of Bournemouth. Okay, not iconic in the Lord's sense, but certainly for followers of cricket on the south coast. Now part of Bournemouth University it was, for many years, a Hampshire County Cricket Club outground and, for anyone old enough to remember the last time Hampshire won the county championship, it was at Dean Park that the deciding victory was achieved.
That was back in 1973, just one year before Bournemouth swapped counties in the Government's 'reorganisation of local government' becoming Dorset's largest town in the process. In 2007, a First Direct Bank survey found the town to be the 'Happiest place in Britain'.
But, all has not been happy in recent years at the home of Dorset County Cricket Club.
When long serving groundsman, John Fazackerley, retired in 2008, his replacement was sought via the Pitchcare website jobs section. The salary offered - £18,000 at the time - was roundly and rightly slated by members as being derogatory and insulting. Enter Andy Dixon.
Andy left school to take a three year apprenticeship in aircraft engineering at British Airways, Heathrow but, after qualifying, spent just three months in the job, citing "acute dermatitis and a loathing for working indoors" as his reasons for getting out.
He joined Guildford Borough Council Sports Department as a trainee groundsman, working on bowling greens, whilst studying at Merrist Wood College under David Rhodes. Here he gained his NVQ Level 2, passing out as top student, followed by an HNC, which he passed with distinction. "It was fitted in around the day job," he recalls. "I spent eight hours a week at college and a further twenty hours a week on homework."
I interviewed Andy in the splendidly named W. G. Grace Meeting Room in Dean Park's historic pavilion, which dates back to 1869, during a Minor Counties Trophy game between Dorset and Wiltshire. When I arrived, the scoreboard looked frightening for Dorset, with two Wiltshire batsmen on centuries, 290 on the board and still seven overs to go!
So, how did he get into being a cricket groundsman? "Whilst working for Guildford Council, I was given the responsibility of looking after the astro pitch at King's College Secondary School in the city. The adjacent cricket square was looked after by head groundsman, John Yates, and I just started to help out in my spare time."
So, was he your mentor? "No, that was David Cooper at Burpham Park. We were looking after four bowling greens and three cricket squares, and that's where I truly got the bug. In addition, when Surrey CCC played a first class game at Guildford, myself, and around seven other council groundsmen, were seconded to help out head groundsman, Bill Clutterbuck. He's a bit of a legend in Surrey groundsmen's circles. I still speak to him occasionally when I need a bit of advice - that's if I'm not on the Pitchcare message board - and we met up last Christmas for a pint."
After thirteen years with the council, Andy applied for the post at Dean Park - he was due to start on 1st October but, due to the small print in his employment contract, was not able to take up his position until the first week of November. "John Fazackerley had, in effect, already retired, so no renovations were carried out on the square and, with the dreadful winter we had, there was simply nothing I could do."
The result was, by Andy's own admission, some pretty poor wickets in the summer of 2009 and, as is often the case when a long standing groundsman retires, the blame was firmly laid at the feet of the new boy.
"I simply could not produce a flat surface. There were clumps of rye grass, thick basal sheath and just two inches of root growth. Chuck in 104 fixtures in the 2009 season and I simply had no time to improve things."
By the middle of the season, Andy was receiving flack from all quarters. "I confess that it was really affecting me. I spoke to my boss at the university and suggested I should hand in my notice. His response was great. 'Tell me what you intend to do at the end of the season?' he asked. So, I explained to him the circumstances that had led to the wickets being so poor and that I intended to thrash the square to bits, outlining all the methods I would use. 'Then you have no need to resign' he said. 'I'll stand by you'."
Andy got through to the end of the season, still fending off criticism, and began his 'thrashing' of the square. "Officials at the county club were horrified by the work I was carrying out. One even asked me if I knew what I was doing!"
So concerned were they, that they called in the county's ECB Pitch Advisor, John Old, Head Groundsman at Sherborne School (an occasional venue for Dorset representative sides), to 'urgently' come and take a look.
"John asked me what I was doing, why I was doing it and what I expected to achieve? After I had explained my programme of work he just said 'well, done, carry on'. I confess to breathing a sigh of relief."
The Dean Park square has twenty-four tracks. The six middle ones are kept exclusively for first class and minor counties games. There are four junior and four practice strips. The remaining ten tracks are used for 'others'. These include club matches and university fixtures. This year, there will be a total of ninety-seven matches played across the square, with the final game scheduled for 19th September.
The 2010 season started well for Andy, with the wickets playing much more consistently. The strip for a Clydesdale Bank 40 game between the Unicorns and Glamorgan received a 'very good' report from umpires Tim Robinson and Mark Benson, and Andy hopes that, on the back of their first win in the tournament, the Unicorns will eventually make Dean Park their permanent home.
I asked about preparation for the Dorset v Wiltshire match. "Typical really," said Andy. "I had a match on the Saturday which, because England were playing their first world cup game, finished at 6.30pm. That meant that I could get on to the square a bit earlier than normal. I did a final scarify, followed by a brush, cut and roll, marked out and put out the 30 and 15 yard circles. I hand watered the used ends and put the covers and side sheets on. Then I moved the boundary rope and sight screens, before finally cutting the outfield. I finished just after 10.00pm."
"I was back on the ground at 7.00am on the day of the match, with the game due to start at 10.00am. I tell everyone that the gates will be open two hours before the game. This allows me some time to do my work without any interruptions. But, still people moan about not being allowed in. The last thing I want is people giving me their opinions whilst I'm trying to get on with my job!"
"I've got the covers to take off, the practice nets to put up on the outfield and the stumps to put in. Then, I've just got to be plain sociable with everyone!"
"The rules of the competition state that final cut and roll are to be completed within 30 minutes of the start so, as you can imagine, it is pretty full on. And, just to add to the workload, the pulley system on the scoreboard broke, so I had to fix that as well."
At the time of my visit, Andy had no assistance, other than a couple of cricket fans to help with hand rolling the strip on match days. It is a punishing schedule that, because of the extensive fixture list, allows Andy little or no spare time. "During the season I will easily work a 100 hour week. When games are on, I do set my alarm and grab an hour or so's sleep - that's if some bloke from Pitchcare doesn't come to see me for an interview! The early starts and late finishes are the only way I can get everything done."
At the start of the season, Andy allows sixteen days for preparation, but that reduces to eleven days through the season due to the fixture schedule. "I've got a Dorset Under 15 Twenty20 final the day after the Trophy game. I'll spoil them and let them play on today's wicket," he says with a smile. "I might get an extra half hour's lie in!"
The heavy fixture list means that Andy can rarely use covers on his square to assist with his preparation. Coupled with a fairly regular on shore breeze, controlling drying is very difficult. The square is Kaloam to a five inch depth and is susceptible to cracking when it dries out too quickly.
But, it was the outfield that thwarted Hampshire CCC's attempt to return to the ground they last played on twelve years ago. A warm-up 'friendly' Twenty20 game against Dorset, prior to the start of the Friends Provident T20, had to be called off due to a waterlogged outfield. "It's another area I have got to address," says Andy. "I carry out regular slitting, but that is not enough. It really needs a good deep aeration programme but, with an annual budget of just £3,000, that simply isn't viable. And, anyway, I've already allocated £2,000 of that to end of season renovations!"
Andy is contracted to work a thirty-seven hour week on the original wage as advertised. He does get a one bedroom flat thrown in but, I ask, why the hell do it? "I love this job," he says. "Regardless of the hours I put in, there's nothing better than producing a wicket that everyone praises. It makes it all worthwhile. The flack I got last year, whilst not justified for being targeted at me, was a further incentive to put things right."
During the winter months Andy takes a much needed holiday. His work time is centred around doing the non-essential jobs, like repainting the many benches and generally keeping the place looking tidy. And, of course, he will get his fixture list - probably close to 100 - so that he can plan the use of the tracks over the course of the season.
As Dorset struggled to 98-5, I decided that I could not watch my adopted county get a bigger thrashing than Andy gave his square, and made to leave. As I walked back to my car, I bumped in to John Fazackerley, who had come down to the ground to watch the game. In typical forthright Lancastrian fashion, he gave me his views on Dorset cricket, groundsmanship and retirement, the latter of which he seems to be enjoying. It was good to see him looking so well.
Later that evening I went online to find out just how heavy was Dorset's defeat. Imagine my surprise to find that they had lost by just 22 runs.
Both teams had heaped praise on Andy's wicket: "That was the best wicket I have ever played on," said Wiltshire captain, Michael Coles. Nick Park, Captain of Dorset, walked out to the square, whilst Andy was doing his repairs, to say "thanks for an amazing wicket!"
Barry Lewis, Dorset committee member, said "that's the best wicket I have seen here for years," whilst Dorset batsman, Darren Cowley, son of former Hampshire player and now first class umpire, Nigel, said, "what do I think about the wicket? It made 670 runs in 100 overs. Good, hard and fast, and that's what you want for one-day cricket."
Whilst talking to the Dorset coach, Alan Willows, Andy was explaining how the square will get even better once the advantageous rooting system has established itself. "What do you mean it will get better? You can't get any better than that," he replied. "Just watch me," says Andy.
Next stop for Andy is an HND in Sports Turf Management. Where will he find the time, or will he be doing it online? "I'm not sure on both counts," he says. "I'd rather attend college, as I think interaction with fellow students is 50% of the learning. I'll probably have to go back to Merrist Wood, although Cranfield is an option."
With the umpires reporting good, even bounce, good, even grass cover, fast pace, with medium spin and no inconsistencies, Andy looks to have come through a difficult time. Whilst there are a few 'grumpy old men' who still hark back to last season's problems, Andy wants to be judged on what he is achieving now. As he says "the grass is always greener on my side."
As we were going to press, we learned that the university had provided Andy with an assistant "at his beck and call" and, also, that the sports department were supplying work experience students to help out.
Sometimes, seeing things in black and white (the original text was a tad more 'aggressive') highlights issues that go unseen by the powers that be. I am delighted for Andy that his concerns are being addressed.